Xian

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Chapter 1.1: The Knight and The Prodigy

So, now you have an idea of life in Leo...and it only gets worse from there. Though they are the root of most problems, the fools who fancy themselves as “noble” are surpassed in conceit by only one other social class: The Knights. Nearly a thousand knightly orders roam Leo, espousing all manner of chivalric nonsense beneath whatever banner that tolerates their sanctimonious drivel.

Most of them are just pretentious bandits, and a few of them are self-aware enough to embrace that. Yet one order stands as an exception to this hypocrisy: The Magis Eques. These prodigies of war, statecraft, and magic have earned my respect. Of course, reverence can be its own detriment. Much rests on the shoulders of these individuals, and even the best can only carry so much...

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Early. Atma always woke up early. And there had always been someone sitting across from her, looking at the rising sun, and as restless as she was. First, it had been her brother...and now it was this strange woman, sheathed in black plate, seated against her greatsword, and with her face hidden behind an obsidian skull mask. Her only human feature was her long auburn hair, which was meticulously kept.

Not wanting to be intrusive, yet still curious, Atma called to her from behind the shadows of the campfire. “Dame Barbara?”

The Skull mask turned towards her and out came a smooth though bubbly tone. “Just Babs.”

“Ok. Uhm...Babs?”

“Yep?”

The skull mask remained fixed on Atma, waiting for the young girl’s inquest. It was slightly unnerving: to hear such a sweet and inviting tone, from so fearsome a visage. But Atma shook it off and asked away. “How much longer until we arrive at your chapter house?”

“Four days at most. Maybe we can get some horses in the next town.”

“You truly believe we’ll make it that far?”

Babs turned her head to look past Atma, and the younger woman followed her gaze. Her eyes widened as she saw the corpses of three heavily armed men. From the looks of things, the trio had been hoping to surround the sleeping pair, perhaps confident in their superior numbers, or maybe in their now moot fighting skills.

None of it mattered though, least of all to the woman in the mask. “Yeah, I think so.”

Whatever the variables, Babs had let them come close, and then finished all three of them so quietly that Atma hadn’t even woken up.

This was another question preying at the younger woman’s mind. She knew only so much about her guardian. So egged on by curiosity, if not a simple desire to be social, Atma sat up in her cot, still huddled within some blankets. “Do you ever sleep?”

“Don’t need to, part of being undead I guess...it gets a little boring though.”

“Being an undead?”

Babs’ tone brightened. “No, that’s pretty awesome.”

“You are strange for a Knight.”

Babs shrugged her shoulders and turned her skulled face back to Atma. “You wanna get some sleep or are you ready to move out?”

That same bubbly voice now managed to balance between determination and genuine concern. The determination made sense, there was only so much time to dawdle after all.

But Atma did need rest, and the thought of dismissing Babs’ clear concern seemed insulting. But the younger woman remained in a seated position, just in case. “I’d like another hour if possible.”

Babs nodded before turning towards her pack. “Sure, take all the time you need.”

She then took a hairbrush from the folds of her backpack, turned towards her sword, and began brushing her hair in the dim reflection of the blade.

Atma couldn’t help but wonder at the sight. “In the middle of the dark? What a strange woman.”

Atma laid back down on her cot, her cat-eyes twinkling in the flames before they fell shut. The young lady dreamed of many things in that short hour. An angel fell from heaven, who begged Atma to run away. A great city burned, the flames touching the horizon. Finally, her own eyes, mournful and hateful all at once, stared at her. She woke after that, but steadily. A few flicks of her eyelids, and then she rolled over to see the campfire’s cooled embers and surrounding ashes.

Knowing her leisure time was over, Atma sat up and began packing her things, just as Babs finished packing her own equipment. The quality of which Atma’s couldn’t help but marvel at. “That sword is beautiful, but why the armor? I know that Dame Bar...Babs is a death knight but surely there are more practical ensembles for the open road. Especially in such a lovely country.”

The sword in question was polished and cleaned immaculately, with no nicks or abrasions across its straight blade. The sword’s lion head hilt and crossguard were plain steel wrapped in lovely but simple cloth. As Babs sheathed the sword into the scabbard at her side, the leaves hidden beneath winter snows fluttered in the breeze, heralding the arrival of the spring season.

The air was cool but comforting, the open grassland moved with the breeze, just as the shadows of the few trees hovering over their tiny camp turned ever so slightly with the rising sun. Atma took it all in, and was so enraptured by the sight that she didn’t notice that Babs had finished packing her things. The younger woman looked at this in surprise, even as she fastened the locks on her lightweight leather armor.

She then raised her mask and hood across her face, just before the sun cast it’s light on her. “My apologies, I didn’t...I was...I’m sorry I was just looking at-”

“Everything? Ya, it’s pretty, but so is the rest of the country.”

“Is all of Leo like this?”

Babs waved a hand, pointing indicating in different directions. “The eastern and southern parts. If you go west then you get into the plains, and then the Caliph Border. If you go north then you get into Strumhanden. There’s a lot of cattle and lots of mines. And personally? I like the people a little better.”

Atma tilted her head, surprised at the simple honesty of the statement. “Why is that?”

“You’ll see.”

The two travelers disassembled their campsite and walked further on. They marched next to but not quite on the road. Babs had explained that they could use it as a buffer against the approach of hostile individuals, using it either as a trench or a killing pit depending on the situation. As the sun finally crawled free of its crib, Atma looked at her companion’s luxurious hair, marveling not only at its beauty but at the care that Babs took in avoiding its disturbance.

She thought to act on her curiosity. “During the night, you brushed your hair. Why?”

Babs kept walking on, not even turning to face her. “Well we needed to get moving once the sun started to rise, and I doubt we’ll have much time once we get into Ulq. So, I figured I might as well use the time we had to do some prep work.”

Atma thought on this and wondered if the knight had managed to work on not only her hair but also her armor, her sword, and the rest of her kit in the short hour that Atma had been asleep.

Looking at Babs, it wouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Despite her haunting appearance, there was no rust or grime on the death knight’s armor, and none of the joints clacked or squeaked against each other noisily. It was clearly arcane in nature, but even without any magic, it was obvious that Babs put a lot of work into its maintenance.

Atma was impressed. “Do all the knights of your order equip themselves in such a fashion?”

“Not all of them are Death Knights, so no. But the other guys usually keep the same quality of gear if that’s what you mean.”

“It is.”

“Well, there you go.”

“That voice...”

Atma just couldn’t get over Babs’ voice. It was so normal, so typical of a mortal creature. It certainly shouldn’t have belonged to the armored juggernaut that strode beside her now. Still though, it was a pleasant voice, and it had a lovely and inviting energy to it that fit for the spring season. Atma wondered if such thoughts were strange to have at the moment, especially with the knowledge that they were being pursued. Her brother would certainly think so.

“Well if those men last night are any indication, I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

They walked a little further on before a loud sound was carried on the wind. Instinctively, Babs and Atma fell to the ground, using the grass as partial cover. The grass was long enough that Bab’s large frame was decently concealed.

While that was certainly a blessing, it didn’t assuage Atma’s concerns. “What was that noise?”

Atma peered through the grass blades and found the answer, it was the whinny of a horse. The beast in question galloped at a rapid pace. In pursuit were five riders, dressed in the noble hunting regalia of Leo.

They shouted over the cries of their horses. “Damn beast!”

“Don’t shoot her, she’s bred three of our best already.”

The riders surrounded the runaway mare, the ground thumping beneath their mount’s hooves. Soon enough the horses came to a steady beat, the mare trotting in a futile ring, and the other horses circling her like lions on an antelope.

This left the nobles, 3 men and 2 women, to talk among themselves, debating on what to do with their prize. “Father will be happy that we reacquired his pet.”

“With the trouble she gave us, we ought to break her legs and leave her in this field.”

“That’s rather harsh, dear sister.”

“We can replace bitches readily enough, why not broodmares?”

One of the nobles, a young boy no more than seventeen, spoke out. “She’s a noble beast, she deserves better than that.”

Atma and Babs looked at each other and nodded. Up from their bellies they leaped, and with a loud cry did Dame Barbara say: “Scuse us-”

The nobles turned with a start.

While the Death Knight continued. “But would you fine gentles happen to know where the next town is...Also, we want your horse.”

The nobles looked in muted horror at Babs, until the younger sister brought out her crossbow and aimed at her. “Undead!”

The oldest among them, a haughty young man, shouted: “Hold you fool!”

The noble did as she was commanded, but looked at her older brother in annoyance. He didn’t pay attention. “Look at the crest upon her left shoulder.”

The noble brood looked at Bab’s left pauldron, and emblazoned on it was a Griffon with a scimitar in its mouth, the Crest of the Magis Eques. The Nobles descended from their horses and bowed to the skull spattered knight.

One of the noble ladies, the one that didn’t pull out the crossbow, dared to lift her head. “Goodness, it’s such a thrill to meet one of your order in person. But um, how come you’re here?”

Babs shrugged. “Just a cursory tour of the country with my squire here.”

“Are you lost? I don’t see any horses with you.”

“Well, some men killed our horses a few days ago.”

“Oh. Do you need some help hunting them down?”

“No, but a gravedigger might be handy.”

The nobles looked at Babs with curious expressions, and Atma was sure that the death knight had rolled her eyes before she said: “They’re dead.”

The nobles nodded in delayed, but gratifying, understanding. After this affirmation, the oldest brother smiled. “A most prestigious display of skill Dame Knight, but if I may ask, what would you want with this horse?”

Babs let out a sweetly tuned whistle from behind her mask, and the rebellious mare trotted over to her obediently, who came to Babs’ side and graciously let the knight brush her mane. The nobles rose, amazed that this stranger had accomplished what they could not.

Though the Elder Brother seemed unimpressed by this, even bringing some sarcasm into his voice. “Is this the power of the Magis Eques?”

Babs kept her masked eyes on the horse, examining a few bruises on its legs and sides. “One of them I guess.”

The Elder Brother kept his grin and exchanged confident looks with his siblings before turning back to Babs and Atma. “Tell you what, if you can beat me in a show of magic, I’ll not only let you have the horse. But you may stay in the finest rooms of our estate.”

“And if you win?”

“You may stay in our home, but you’ll lay in my chambers.”

Atma and three of the siblings were about to roar in protest. But Babs raised her hand to silence them. “I accept your terms. One proviso though.”

“And what is that?”

“You’ll be dueling my squire.”

Everyone was surprised, most of all Atma. But the Eldest Brother shook it off first and laughed. “Do you know who I am?”

Babs shook her head innocently, even folding her hands behind her as if she were indulging an annoying relative.

Which was apparently a massive blow to the elder brother’s ego. “I am Constantine De Fuoco. Heir to the De Fuoco Wizard family and inheritor of their bloodlines’ collected knowledge and power.”

“Nice.”

“And you would dare to send an...apprentice to duel me?”

Babs nodded her head, maintaining a very sweet and innocent tone to her movements.

Atma’s confusion was only matched by Constantine’s fury. “Very well! Send out your “champion”. I look forward to your company tonight.”

He smiled and walked away from the horses, finding a flat area suitable for open combat. Atma looked to Babs for guidance. Recieving only a hand wave motioning for her to go on.

Resigning herself to the situation, the younger woman did as she was bid, and followed after Constantine. She put her right hand into her cupped left and then bowed low, as she had been trained to in her younger years. Constantine bowed in a more fanciful and courtly manner, appropriate to his station, before discarding his riding cloak.

The young woman made no such flourish. She merely descended into a looser stance and took stock of her opponent. “He seems confident, but then you’d have to be if you were willing to challenge a Magis Eques.”

Constantine pointed at Atma, and a beam of green energy burst from his finger and flew towards her chest. Atma conjured her defense just in time, a spectral sword that blocked the beam with the flat of its blade.

Constantine then flexed his hand and five beams of the same energy spread out and converged on Atma. She conjured another blade in her free hand and slapped aside all of the blasts in a single motion. The beams slammed into the ground leaving craters and floating dust in their wake.

“He uses pure arcane energy...this family must be powerful indeed.”

Atma decided to end this quickly. She brought her blades together and they formed into a bow. She fired a shot that nicked Constantine on the arm. Before she could fire again, Constantine spread his hands. Several arcane fissures opened around Atma and unleashed pulsing energies upon her. A massive explosion of emerald energy erupted on the ground where Atma was standing, and Constantine laughed in triumph.

As he was about to turn and gloat, a familiar spectral blade hung at his throat. He looked at its wielder and saw Atma. In her right hand was the blade, and in her left was the arrow she had fired.

Constantine smiled in understanding. “You can teleport to any construct you make, that’s quite impressive.”

Atma gave no response, and Constantine laughed before shaking his head. “I concede, and apologize for my crude behavior. We’ll guide you to our manse.”

Babs was still tending to her new horse, even as she talked. “Would that be Skywood Hearth?”

The older female sibling lit up. “Yes, it is. Do you know of it?”

The Death Knight kept to her work, barely nodding in acknowledgment. “I’ve heard a few stories. Plus I recognized the country after getting my bearings. But don’t mind me. I think Atma over here is still raw, go annoy her for a bit.”

Not needing any further invitation, the De Fuoco siblings swarmed Atma and barraged her with questions and praises. Atma couldn’t keep up though, and once again, the older sister was the voice of reason. “Give her some room everybody.”

Once the siblings gave the young lady some distance, they introduced themselves. The two sisters were Lucia, the junior, and Francesca, the elder. The latter was a knight in training and the former was a mystical prodigy (with some greater knowledge than her eldest brother). The middle brother was named Absalom. Which was told to Atma by Lucia, and confirmed by a simple nod from the brother in question.

The youngest brother was named Lorenzo. And he had plenty to say. “I’ve never seen Constantine lose that way before. You’re amazing.”

Atma nodded, nervous, and embarrassed. Her unease was so obvious that Lorenzo backed away, smiling sheepishly while trying to keep the tremor out of his voice. “I’m sorry if I offend you.”

Atma shook her head. “No-no, I’m just...I’m not much of a conversationalist.”

“You’re a hell of a magician, pardon my language.”

Lorenzo looked at the others as they mounted their horses, including Babs on her new acquisition. Just as the death knight was about to lift Atma onto the back of the mare, Lorenzo, ignoring the cracks in his voice, said: “My lady, please you’ve walked so far. Take my horse.”

Atma wasn’t sure what to say. But Babs nudged her over with a steel-plated hand, and Atma complied. Lorenzo offered to help her mount up, but Atma managed on her own.

To which he smiled before walking along with her. “It’s a good thing you made it here. The roads have become far more dangerous of late.”

Babs looked over. “Why’s that?”

“Stonehause, Leo’s bastion at the southern border, has fallen.”

Babs nearly stood up in her stirrups. “Fallen to who?”

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